Politics & Policy

Against Bribery

Ours is an aristocracy built on ball tickets.

The McCain-Feingold campaign-finance proposal does the wrong thing about the right problem. Senators John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D., Wis.) are absolutely correct about the corrupting influence of campaign cash on government. Donations to politicians and parties are often just legal bribes through which private contributors purchase access in order to secure public favors.

Ethanol subsidies chug along, for instance, thanks to $1,666,175 in contributions that Archer Daniels Midland gave Democrats and Republicans in the 1998 and 2000 election cycles. ADM is the chief beneficiary of this corporate-welfare scam.

Major sugar companies paid $2,973,704 in bipartisan donations in that period to sustain the notorious federal sugar program. It fixes domestic sugar costs at double the world price and subsidizes highly toxic sugar plantations near Florida’s Everglades.

Vouchers and other school reforms might not suffer nearly universal Democratic scorn absent the American Federation of Teachers’ $5,487,970 in donations and the National Education Association’s 5,337,432 in gifts during the 1998 and 2000 campaigns. (Republicans scored only about $55,000 and $312,000 from those respective unions, the Center for Responsive Politics calculates.)

The problem is not McCain-Feingold’s spot-on diagnosis but its prescription. It would truss the First Amendment by barring certain independent campaign ads within 60 days of any general election. This would gag Americans precisely when they should be gabbing about issues and candidates.

McCain-Feingold’s critics, namely Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), counter with a simple plan: Let people give whatever they want to politicians, provided they promptly disclose those contributions. This idea merits a two-word response: Denise Rich.

The ex-wife of Clinton pardonee Marc Rich kept on giving. Her contributions to the Clintons and other Democrats totaled $1,057,600 between the 1994 and 2000 election cycles. The issue of supposedly undisclosed donations is a red herring bigger than Moby Dick. Denise Rich’s gifts, like millions of others, are disclosed. That’s why they’re public. See opensecrets.org for details.

Americans simply cannot enjoy equal justice under the law when Americans are unequal before lawmakers. Do you know someone who deserved a pardon from Bill Clinton? Good luck. If you were obscure or a non-donor, your pleadings likely were ignored.

The status quo is unworthy of a free society. It befits an aristocracy, though one built on ball tickets rather than bloodlines.

As Elizabeth Drew explains in The Corruption of American Politics, after the GOP won control of Congress in 1994, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R., Tex.) “became famous for keeping a list of contributors to the Republicans and refusing to grant audiences to anyone who hadn’t forked over.”

When Chippewa Indians in Hudson, Wis. applied for a casino license, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt heeded the objections of the rival Ho-Chunk and six other tribes with gambling operations. “Do you know how much these tribes have given to the Democratic Party?” Babbitt asked, according to a deposition of former Babbitt advisor and Chippewa attorney Paul Eckstein. “It’s something like half a million dollars.” The Ho-Chunks gave Democrats $273,000. In 1995, Babbitt overruled regional Interior officials for the first time in a gambling case and rejected the Chippewa’s application.

A better approach than McCain’s or McConnell’s would allow only individual adult citizens to donate. The 1974 contribution limit of $1,000 to each candidate should be adjusted and indexed for inflation. Candidates then could raise about $3,500 from each donor. These rules also would apply to political parties.

Corporations, unions, and PACs do not vote. Thus, they could give neither to candidates nor parties, nor coerce their employees or members to do so. These groups could, however, run as many independent ads as they wished for or against politicians and parties provided they promptly disclosed their donors’ names and gifts. This would drag political checkbooks into the sunshine. It would require corporate and labor pleaders to speak out rather than quietly slip checks into the pockets of congressional committee chairmen, presumably to advance “good government.”

Would Senator Doe look more favorably toward textile tariffs if the Union of Needletrades Employees sang his praises? Perhaps. But such deregulated ads and their funding would have been published. Journalists and watchdogs who questioned Doe’s integrity easily could cite such communications. Also, Doe likely would feel less obligated to those who independently supported him than to donors who handed him money.

This approach is not perfect. Only Heaven is. Down here, America needs a campaign-finance system better than today’s. This far superior idea would minimize legal bribery while maximizing free speech. This republic deserves nothing less.

Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor, a contributor to National Review Online, and a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research.


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